Buildings archaeologists from MOLA record the interior of the Regent's Crescent ice house (c) MOLA

18th century Ice House re-discovered beneath the streets of Marylebone

MOLA team
28.12.2018

Our buildings archaeologists have rediscovered a huge underground Ice House dating from the 1780s whilst working on behalf of Great Marlborough Estates as part of the development of Regent’s Crescent, a landmark residential project. The Ice House has been designated as a Scheduled Monument by Historic England, and it is hoped that public access, via a new viewing corridor, will be made available at certain times of year during archaeological and architectural festivals.

Located just off Regent’s Park, the subterranean Ice House would have been one of the largest of its kind when first built - measuring an impressive 7.5 metres wide and 9.5m deep. Remarkably, the red brick, egg-shaped chamber survived the Blitz despite the destruction of the mews houses above, and remains in excellent condition, along with its entrance passage, and vaulted ante-chamber. Testament, perhaps, to "the great engineering and construction abilities present towards the end of the 18th century" says Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England.

In the 1820s the Ice House was used by pioneering ice-merchant and confectioner William Leftwich to store and supply high quality ice to London’s Georgian elites, long before it was possible to manufacture ice artificially. It was extremely fashionable to serve all manner of frozen delights at lavish banquets, and demand was high from catering traders, medical institutions and food retailers. Ice was collected from local canals and lakes in winter and stored, but it was often unclean, and supply was inconsistent.

Leftwich was one of first people to recognise the potential for profit in imported ice: in 1822, following a very mild winter, he chartered a vessel to make the 2000km round trip from Great Yarmouth to Norway to collect 300 tonnes of ice harvested from crystal-clear frozen lakes, an example of “the extraordinary the lengths gone to at this time to serve up luxury fashionable frozen treats and furnish food traders and retailers with ice” (as put by David Sorapure, our Head of Built Heritage). The venture was not without risk: previous imports had been lost at sea, or melted whilst baffled customs officials dithered over how to tax such novel cargo. Luckily, in Leftwich’s case a decision was made in time for the ice to be transported along the Regent’s Canal, and for Leftwich to turn a handsome profit. 

Once restored, the Ice House will be incorporated into the gardens of Regent’s Crescent, which have been designed by world renowned landscape architect Kim Wilkie, the visionary behind the gardens at the V&A and the Natural History Museum. Great Marlborough Estates are now in the process of rebuilding the historical integrity of the Crescent in conjunction with the restoration of the Ice House.

Built in 1819, the Grade I listed Georgian crescent was originally designed by John Nash, famed architect behind Buckingham Palace. The iconic houses were in fact destroyed by enemy action during the Blitz and subsequently replaced in the 1960s by a replica. Paying homage to Nash’s original vision, the development of Regent’s Crescent will be executed in an historically authentic way; from the shape of the windows to the lime-washed render wash used on the façade.

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